In Matayoshi kobudo we have a weapon called tinbe. It is a sword and shield combination- a medium sized round shield “worn” on the forearm and a short single bladed sword or large knife. The term tinbe refers to the shield. It is usually written in katakana, テンベイー, which often indicates a foreign language origin for a word, but it is also written using these characters: 籐牌. These are the same characters used for tengpai, the southern Chinese shield it is identical to.[i] Even though it has the same name, it is very different in form and use to the other Okinawan tinbe, which is a smaller oval center grip shield or buckler (often represented by a turtle shell) used with a short spear called a rochin.
In our tradition it is very clear that this is not a native Okinawan weapon but something Matayoshi Shinko learned in Fuchow from Kingai Roshi: Matayoshi Shinpo called it 中国南派少林拳の 籐牌術 (Chugoku Nanba(n) Shorin Ken no Tinbe Jutsu) or Chinese Southern Shaolin Tinbe techniques. This isn’t surprising; identical short sword and rattan shield combinations are common in Fujianese and other southern Chinese arts. Matayoshi Shinpo would on occasion demonstrate the weapon with a sword resembling a butterfly sword (hudiedao) or shield sword (paidao) as used in southern China with the tengpai by local militia and government soldiers, as well as in various martial arts, from at least the Qing, and more likely the Ming, period on.[ii]
Most people familiar with the tinbe in Matayoshi kobudo think of the shield as a circular metal shield, around 22” in diameter. But those metal shields are not the original version. Matayoshi sensei described that to me as a larger rattan shield with a leather cover. In the liner notes to the video the dojo released in the 90’s it was described as bring made of the woven bark of the binrou (a betel nut palm) tree or bamboo, coated with oil, and with leather stretched over it. A version like this used to be in the dojo and I believe is now in the museum at the karate kaikan.[iii]
The metal ones that were used in the Kodokan were made in the early 1970’s. They were made because getting the traditional version was difficult at the time. Those also got damaged doing pair work and needed to be replaced periodically, which was both inconvenient and could get expensive.[iv] The metal ones were durable (the original ones are still being used, around 50 years later) and were made locally.
When they were built however, certain compromises had to be made. Perhaps most importantly they are smaller than the shield they are based on. Traditional southern Chinese tengpai are between 70cm and 1 meter (27-39”) in diameter, with the 70-80cm range being the most common. That is considerably larger than the metal ones. Kimo Wall and Sakai Ryugo both told me about Matayoshi sensei in the 60’s using a shield large enough to crouch and hide nearly his entire body behind. He would duck walk with it, while hidden, a technique seen in a number of southern Chinese sword and shield routines. He would also hide behind it and attack from various angles.
But making a, say, 35” diameter shield out of metal results in a really heavy implement, hard to use and too heavy for many of the system’s techniques. It would also have been hard to make. While recently many tinbe are made from the larger woks available in the markets in Naha there are other options now that were not available in the 70’s. For example about 20 years ago I made one about 25” in diameter using an aircraft aluminum blank from a Society For Creative Anachronism armorer and these days there are even synthetic options that take impact well. But at the time local craftsmen were the only resource so even though they were custom made there were limited options for material and construction. Different materials result in different properties and balancing the properties of the shield- weight, durability, cost, and available materials- resulted in what over time became the standard tinbe.
But the metal construction does indeed result in some different properties. It is smaller, so doing something like concealing your body behind it isn’t possible. It is metal, so certain techniques, like punching with the edge, are more effective, while others, like pressing and then attacking with a blade right through the shield instead of around it, are impossible. While these changes are relatively minor they do affect use. In an attempt to better understand the weapon I have made a number of experiments over the years. Over 25 years ago I tried a rattan shield meant for Wushu. It was around 26” in diameter and much lighter than the metal ones. That weight and size change led to some differences in how I did our techniques. Because it wasn’t very heavily built it got beat up pretty quickly (and had been expensive) so I stopped doing pair work with it, but it was fun, and interesting, to use. After a while I settled into using a lighter, larger shield sometimes for kata and sticking with a roughly 25″ diameter metal one for pair work.
Not that long ago however I decided to do some more experimenting, in the hope of getting to something a little closer to the shield our techniques had been built around. I had been working tinbe a lot with a couple of my students. I’ve been lucky enough to have some really interesting exposure to our tinbe practice. The basic form we do was, as far as I have been able to find out, made in the post-war years by Matayoshi Shinpo, from techniques passed down by his father. It is pretty well known.[v] There are, however, a number of variations I have been taught for it over the years. Not huge changes, but different jumps, rolls, footwork and cutting patterns in various places in the kata, as well as a technique for throwing the paidao. (I also have a little exposure to what I’m told is a pre-Kodokan tinbe form, but if I ever get more on that I’ll update this.) Anyway, we had been spending some time working these variations and applications for them along with the kata and pair work we usually do and the process got me thinking about the shield again.
I did some looking on-line and not surprisingly there were options available there hadn’t been the last time I looked. I found custom size rattan shields available here. Bruce was great to work with on sizing and such and the shields are well made. I got a really big one first, 1 meter diameter. It seemed a little large, even for me at 6’2″, for our techniques. I then got one around 85cm (34”) diameter and it felt good.[vi] The tighter weave in this rattan compared to the wushu one, along with the size, made it a bit heavier but more durable and still much lighter than the metal ones. Honestly, this by itself would have probably been a good result, but I was interested in going a little further with the project.
I took a close look at my notes, and at how rattan shields were treated and cared for traditionally. Matayoshi sensei had said, and written, the shield was coated with “abura/油” which translates as oil, though no specific oil. Chinese shields were often soaked in tung oil, and while I didn’t want to buy enough of that to set up a pan and soak the shield I did give it a couple of heavy coats of tung oil.
Then I got some leather at a local shop, which early in the pandemic wound up being a bit of an adventure by itself. I have never worked with leather before so some training or experience, as well as a more appropriate set of tools, might have resulted in a better finish, but I did my best. I stretched it over the shield and glued it down with a leather adhesive.
I then did some rough stitching to hold the inside edge down and take out some of the buckling and trimmed off the excess. I glued the remaining edge to the inside and then went back with a double thickness of linen thread to stitch the edge down again, more tightly and evenly. Getting the needle through the multiple layers of leather was entertaining. My notes said the leather was stretched over the frame, which implied a fairly lightweight and soft leather. It might be interesting to try something heavier and harder, like a saddle or shoe leather, but for now this is what I felt was closest to the descriptions I have and the shield I used in the Kodokan in the 90s.
Finally, I painted the leather. It came out pretty well, and so far has been a lot of fun to train with. It is about as heavy as one of the metal shields, but is half again as big in diameter and moves a bit differently. I can’t really hide my whole body behind it but a lot more of my movement is concealed, especially if I am crouching, and it being slightly lighter makes it a bit faster as well. Impact is also absorbed a bit differently by the more flexible rattan and leather surface.
Anyway, it was a fun project and I am looking forward to continuing to train with it. And if I do it again, I’ll have to do a Tiger shield, complete with uniform. No t-shirts here, those guys knew how to suit up…
[i] I have heard various different terms for the sword, sometimes from the same person, including Matayoshi sensei. They have included seiryuto (dragon tail sword), to (sword), nata (often translates to machete but a real nata has no point and a single bevel edge), rochin (a carry over from Ryukyu kobudo and incorrect according to Matayoshi sensei), wakizashi (curved short sword), kodachi (small sword, which is how it was written in the Kodokan video liner notes from the 90s) and beito (This was once from Matayoshi sensei when I asked about it. I noted it but unfortunately didn’t follow up. Bei could be a transliteration of pai, like tin bei for teng pai, and dao is sword 刀, “to” in Japanese).
[ii] It is a slightly different conversation, but the use of a machete with the tinbe is also likely a more recent adaptation. Getting paidao, or hudeidao, on Okinawa was difficult before the advent of the internet. Given the machete’s availability it is an easy, inexpensive, and fairly decent substitute. While I can’t be 100% sure what Kingai Roshi used, given the standard use in Fujian in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Matayoshi sensei’s use of a paidao, it is a pretty safe guess that it was a short single bladed sword with a D guard and upturned rear quillion.
[iii] Interestingly enough, while southern shields are coiled rattan and usually not covered with anything, in northern China, where neither rattan or betel palm grow, they sometimes used wicker or bamboo shields covered with leather. This version seems to be something of a hybrid.
[iv] One of the “origin” stories of the shield is that it was a farmer’s hat that was used as a shield. Romantic but given the weapon’s documented use in China for centuries highly unlikely. This may however have come from the fact that in the 60’s rattan shields were not available on Okinawa. I have been told that they sometimes used cheap cane hats as a substitute. They fell apart quickly, even doing kata, but they cost pennies, so it didn’t matter.
[v] It is also pretty simple, especially in comparison to many southern Chinese forms, but that is a different conversation.